Monday, May 5, 2003

Jones 'humbled' by courthouse honor

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It is hard to imagine what will be going through the mind of Judge Nathaniel R. Jones in his hometown of Youngstown today. At 1:30 p.m., just a few blocks from where he was born 76 years ago, the retired 6th U.S. Circuit Appeals Court judge will witness the official naming of a $22 million building as the Nathaniel R. Jones Federal Building and United States Courthouse.

Judge Nathaniel Jones stands outside the new federal courthouse that will be named in his honor today in Youngstown, Ohio.
(AP/Ron Schwane photo)
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"It will be an unusual experience; I don't know how I will feel," said Jones, who adopted Cincinnati as his home 30 years ago but remains deeply rooted in the hardscrabble steel town 290 miles to the northeast, close by the Pennsylvania border.

"Humbled. Honored.

"Grateful to those who helped me along the way."

And mindful, too, of the irony that his name will be attached to a courthouse in a town that once looked on him as a second-class citizen because of the color of his skin.

The prejudice he faced as a boy growing up in Youngstown, and as a young man trying to make his way in a nearly lily-white legal system there, has not dampened his affection for his hometown, even with its decades-long reputation as a breeding ground for political corruption, mob influence and economic desperation.

"People know the corruption side, but there are some pretty good people in Youngstown," said Jones from his law office in downtown Cincinnati. "They are loyal to a fault. They will stay with a politician they like, even after he falls."

Youngstown has shown that loyalty to Jones, the native son who has over a half-century as a civil rights lawyer and activist judge.

"He is a fellow who did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth," said the Rev. Morris Lee, pastor of Third Baptist Church, the church that Jones attended growing up. "He knows what it is to have hard times."

In the black community of Youngstown's South Side, Lee said, "I can't think of anyone more highly thought of. He is admired by all. A role model."

The courthouse naming caps a career that would have been significant even if Jones had not been appointed to the federal bench by President Carter 26 years ago.

After establishing himself as one of Youngstown's few black attorneys, Jones built a successful private practice that led, in the early 1960s, to his appointment by President Kennedy as the first black assistant U.S. attorney in the District of Northern Ohio.

For a decade he was the chief lawyer for the NAACP, taking over from Thurgood Marshall and arguing school desegregation cases in a host of American cities, including Cleveland, Columbus and Dayton.

Helping others succeed, Jones said, has given him more satisfaction than anything else. It was a lesson his mother drove home.

"Life is a relay race," Jones said. "Someone hands the baton to you and you hand it off to someone else."

On the wall of his Cincinnati office is a photograph of the judge with dozens of men and women who served as his law clerks over his 22 years on the bench; he calls them "my bouquet."

Jones was a mentor to all of them and others as well.

Eugenia Atkinson's parents were divorced and she came from her native South Carolina to live with her father in Youngstown.

Jones and his law partner hired her as a secretary. It was the beginning of a lifelong relationship that has seen Atkinson rise through the ranks of public service, first becoming chairman of the board of trustees at Youngstown State University and now director of the Youngstown Metropolitan Housing Authority.

Jones, Atkinson said, "was like a father to me. He was not just an employer. He was somebody who cared about me as a person. And I have tried to live by that example."

Today, at that gleaming new courthouse, Jones will be but a few blocks away from where he got his first look inside a courtroom more than 60 years ago.

He was a teenager, son of a family that had struggled its way through the Great Depression; a boy whose father lost his job in the steel mills and whose mother took domestic jobs to keep the family fed.

His mother was a determined woman - determined that her son would not be held back by the prejudices of the time; that he would be educated, succeed and be mindful that no matter how much he achieved, he would have a responsibility to help others up the ladder.

She sold subscriptions to a black weekly newspaper in Youngstown, the Buckeye Review. The paper's owner, J. Maynard Dickerson, was one of the few black lawyers in town and a civil rights activist.

It was Dickerson who took young Nate Jones under his wing and brought him into that Youngstown courtroom.

"What I saw was a white judge, and white constables and bailiffs, whites in every position of authority," said Jones. "I was the only other black person there who was not in the prisoners' dock.

"They sat there with an air of smugness and superiority; and I felt like they looked at me and were merging me with the people in the dock," Jones said. "It made an impression."

He grew up on Youngstown's South Side. It was a mixed-race neighborhood; black children such as Nate Jones played in the streets and sandlots with white kids.

But there were always reminders that growing up black was not the same as growing up white.

At the neighborhood YMCA, black and white children played sports together - football, basketball, baseball.

But when it came to other activities, a line was drawn. Tuesday was swimming-lesson day and the city pool was for whites only, so the black kids were taken on nature hikes instead.

"It was bizarre," Jones said, "but we felt helpless to do anything about it."

He did not feel helpless for long.

He had a mother who, when racial taunts were thrown at him by white kids, told her son to always have a comeback, such as, "The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice."

"We felt like we had the last word," Jones said.

By the time he was in high school, he was active in the local NAACP chapter's youth council.

Already, he was challenging the system. A local roller-skating rink would allow blacks only on Monday nights. Jones and his friends organized a boycott of what they called "black night." One Monday, some of Jones' white friends entered the rink in defiance of "black night" and were rousted by off-duty Youngstown police working security.

"There were no laws restricting blacks, but there were customs," Jones said of the Youngstown of his youth. "And the power of the police was used to enforce those (customs) ... It was really no different than Bull Conner down in Alabama."

The white people he grew up with, he said, generally saw nothing wrong with a social system that kept them separated from black neighborhoods.

"I think their attitude was that this was just the way the world is," Jones said. "It didn't occur to them that there was something strange about this."

But for young men such as Nate Jones, it was way of life that was not acceptable, one that had to be challenged, with forcefulness and dignity. "We learned coping skills that served us well all our lives," said Jones. "We survived without feeling diminished."


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